The Personal Is Political.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

CONFESSIONS An Innocent Life in Communist ChinaBy Kang Zhengguo Translated from the Chinese by Susan Wilf Norton. 455 pp. $15.95

As a teenager in 1950s China, Kang Zhengguo lived for a time with his grandparents in a magical-sounding compound called Silent Garden, quietly feeding his literary passions, even decorating his room with "the accoutrements of an elegant scholarly study." But, as Kang chronicles in this affecting and beautifully written memoir, Mao's China was no place for a bookish individualist who used a volume of Mao's Selected Writings to prop up a wobbly bed leg. Nor was it a safe place to send a letter to the Moscow University Library requesting a copy of Dr. Zhivago. (For this, Kang was sentenced to three years in a labor camp.)

The sweep of Kang's life -- from idealistic adolescent to brickyard laborer, detainee and peasant to teacher, husband, father and professor of Chinese at Yale -- has all the drama of the great adventure novels he coveted as a child. It is also an invaluable documentary of life in communist China. "I sought salvation through describing my trials and tribulations in writing," he remarks, but in the end he found it closer to home, through his children, who, living in America, "are free to read and write anything they choose."

THE MAN IN THE WHITE SHARKSKIN SUIT A Jewish Family's Exodus From Old Cairo to the New WorldBy Lucette Lagnado Harper Perennial. 340 pp. $14.95

Lucette Lagnado's memoir, The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit, is a genuine riches-to-rags story. In colonial Egypt, Lagnado's family enjoyed a prosperous life amid Cairo's vibrant Jewish community. Her father, a successful businessman with a taste for sophisticated clothing and other fineries, doted on Lucette, his youngest daughter, a sickly child. After the Nasser regime came to power, the Lagnados, like many other Jews, left under duress. Forced to abandon most of their belongings, the family of six set sail for France with the equivalent of $200 on hand. "We had been banished," Lagnado writes, "to a string of shabby hotels in Paris and New York, until finally ending up in a corner of Brooklyn no wider than ten blocks, where thousands of other refugees from the Levant had also fetched up." Her father was reduced to selling ties on the streets and subways. "You can have a little job. You can open up a flower shop," he advised his daughter, who instead became a reporter for the Wall Street Journal.

Though at heart an homage to her father, Lagnado's memoir is also a tribute to a community that was nearly erased and a heartfelt account of "the peculiar wounds that exile and loss inflict."

From Our Previous Reviews

· Aoibheann Sweeney finds a "gentle balance of comedy and sorrow" in Among Other Things, I've Taken Up Smoking (Penguin, $14), "a coming-out novel about a world we don't quite live in yet, a world in which the great dividing line between straight and gay looks as faint as that other once life-and-death demarcation between Protestant and Catholic," wrote Ron Charles.

· Here If You Need Me (Back Bay, $13.99) is "a superbly crafted memoir of love, loss, grief, hope and the complex subtleties of faith" by Kate Braestrup, a widow and mother who became a chaplain for the Maine Warden Service after her husband's death, according to Jane Ciabattari.

· Dana Milbank, The Post's Washington Sketch columnist, pokes fun at the hometown crowd in Homo Politicus (Broadway, $14) "an amusing pseudo-scientific look at a curious tribe he calls Potomac Man," wrote Robert Leopold.

· At the heart of Peeling the Onion (Harvest, $15), Gunter Grass's controversial memoir in which he reflects on his Nazi past, is "something like a bildungsroman, describing its hero's development from a black-market huckster to a visual artist and a budding writer of genius," noted Joel Agee.

· In Breathing Space (Yale Univ., $18), Gregg Mitman offers an "inspired history" of allergies that looks not only at the ailments but also at the industries they've fostered, from resorts to vacuum cleaner manufacturers and the pharmaceutical industry, wrote Adrian Higgins.

Nora Krug is a regular contributor

to Book World.

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